If you’re like me, you have piles of old photographs you’ve been meaning to go through… someday. Being snowed in a few years ago presented me with the perfect opportunity to catch up on scanning the boxes of photos that had been sitting in my basement for the past 10 years. As an organizer (and therefore a Type A person), I couldn’t face the prospect of being stuck inside again for several days without a major project to keep me occupied. With a snowstorm arriving over the weekend, I thought this would be the perfect time to get this done.
I wanted to tackle this project for a couple of reasons—primarily because I noticed that many older photos had started to deteriorate; I wanted to get them digitized before they got any worse. Secondly, I finally realized that I was never going to make any more physical photo albums (I am not a scrapbooking kind of person).
With all those photos stored away out of sight, I had completely forgotten the parts of my life they represented. I grew up overseas as the daughter of a US Foreign Service officer, so we have some pretty incredible pictures of places most Westerners have never traveled to! The best way to bring those memories back to life was to scan them and have them on my computer; now I can choose my favorites, use them as screensavers, or create digital albums to share with others.
It might not be an impending snowstorm that motivates you to finally give your old photos the TLC they deserve—maybe it’s planning for a family reunion, needing to downsize, or the desire to create a special gift for a loved one. Whatever your reason, I hope my experience will help inspire you to get started. Here are the steps I used to accomplish this long-overdue task in one weekend.
Back It Up
Creating a digital archive is the best way to safely store photos and slides. Scanning images to a disk, thumb drive, or online storage system also makes it convenient to find and share images in person and online. I had been thinking about digitizing my photos for a while, so I was already somewhat prepared. I had purchased two external hard drives—one to store my photos on, and one as an extra backup. No matter where you end up storing your digital photos—whether on your computer hard drive, Adobe Lightroom, Google Photos, Apple Photos, or the myriad other photo organizing options out there—when you’re ready to start scanning, do be sure to create a backup!
I started by going through the pictures, one box at a time. If I looked at all the boxes at once, I got overwhelmed. I just took it a little at a time. Fortunately, I am neurotic enough that I had already organized my photos by year, month, and event.
In my case, I was already the happy owner of a Fujitsu iX500 ScanSnap, without which this entire project would not have been possible. The most important thing I needed was for the power not to go out during the snowstorm—fortunately, it did not. There are lots of good options for personal scanners; here’s a comparison of PC Magazine’s current favorites. (Note: The picture shows a flatbed scanner; not ideal if you’re scanning hundreds of pictures. The ScanSnap made the job incredibly fast and easy for me because it’s possible to scan large batches of photos at a time.)
I scanned my photos directly to the external hard drive, into a folder structure laid out by year, month, and event, similar to how I had them categorized in my physical photo boxes. For my kind of brain, a very ordered structure like this makes the most sense, but you can set it up any way you prefer.
Once I finished scanning, I could decide which ones I wanted to use to make albums by creating specific folders with those photos and importing them directly into Apple Photos. I ended up trashing most of the actual photos (sacrilege, I know), but I did keep those that held really special memories or were of excellent quality. I was able to reduce the number of photo boxes from six to two — a real accomplishment for me.
I realized a lot of important things as I was going through this process.
First, I remembered how in the ’80s and ’90s, when we ordered photos from places like Ritz and Kodak, they often came with free duplicates to give to friends and families. Most of the time, at least for me, those duplicates ended up sitting in the photo boxes just taking up space. (And most were duplicates of pretty bad photos, too!) During this project, I threw away all the duplicates.
Second, a lot of my photos were just terrible! They were out of focus, or I didn’t remember who was in them, or they were just of some generic landscape with no people. If the photos didn’t have a significant memory attached to them, I tossed those, too.
Third, I had a wonderful trip down memory lane, remembering people, places, and events I had completely forgotten about. It made me put my life into perspective and inspired me to get in touch with people I hadn’t seen or talked to for a long time.
While this was a time-consuming project, it also was extremely rewarding; once I had a system down for how I wanted to scan the photos, the actual task went pretty quickly. The snow stopped and eventually I had to get back to my real work, but in that short amount of time, I got my photos scanned. (Most of them, anyway!)
Don’t be deterred by a lack of time, equipment, or expertise—there are lots of companies that can handle the project for you. Legacybox, ScanCafe and GoPhoto are popular online services. Costco, Walmart, and Walgreens (among others) also offer photo and slide conversion services; after you have gone through your photos, take the ones you’d like to digitize to the store’s photo center.
Whatever your motivation (like downsizing) or method for preserving your old photos in digital format, I can promise from personal experience that the end result will be worth the effort. Not only will you be revisiting people, times, and places long forgotten, but you will also be preserving these for future generations to enjoy.
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